Endless Summer: Rum is Sunshine Distilled
on 28/07/11 at 8:03 amSpirits
Rum and I first met in the late 1970s, at a beach bar in Malibu, California. The drink was a chaotic mix of pineapple, orange, and passion-fruit juices, with grenadine, garnished with a maraschino cherry bleeding red dye onto a chunk of canned pineapple. Even with all those elements competing for my attention, the personality of the rum shone through, fiery and flirty. I wanted to get to know this spirit more intimately, but I soon discovered that rum has multiple personalities: Any liquor distilled from sugarcane or its byproduct molasses can bear the rum label; hundreds of brands, produced on every continent except Antarctica, now do. These rums range in character from crystal-clear to dark brown, bright and floral to smoky and rich.
Rum also has baggage: a 350-year history of scandal, from its illegitimate birth on Caribbean sugar plantations, where it was made by forced labor and used as barter in the slave trade, to the low company it kept among pirates and Prohibition-era rumrunners. And then came rum’s association with postwar Polynesiacs who put tiki torches in their yards and umbrellas in their drinks. By the time I discovered them, rum cocktails were considered syrupy, silly. But once I began studying their history, I learned that they were—initially, anyway—actually sophisticated drinks, worth taking seriously. And it was rum’s multi-faceted character that made it all possible.
Over the years, I’ve been able to track down many seminal recipes invented by Donn Beach, who single-handedly created the tiki bar in 1934, when he opened Don The Beachcomber in Hollywood. Although his bar’s decor was Polynesian, Beach found his alcoholic inspiration in the Jamaican Planter’s Punch. He took this simple combination of lime, sugar, and rum and ran with it; while no bartender would ever dream of mixing three different gins in a martini, Beach routinely combined different styles of rum in the same punch, creating a complex base spirit that no one bottle, no matter how good, could approach on its own.